Thousands confront the right at UC Berkeley

February 6, 2017

Mukund Rathi reports on the protest that stopped a bigot from spewing his hate--and comments on the many questions raised in the aftermath that the left must confront.

ON THE night of February 1, Breitbart News editor and far-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos planned to give a talk at the University of California-Berkeley. Thanks to 2,000 Berkeley students and other protesters who were determined to challenge emboldening white supremacy, he didn't get that opportunity.

Contrary to every report in the mainstream media, the decisive factor in stopping Yiannopoulos wasn't broken windows and fires. It was the large and militant presence of ordinary people who were unwilling to allow the Berkeley campus to be used as an organizing space for the far right.

The property destruction--not "violence," as the media put it--that got so much attention was carried out by a small minority of the protesters and has revived an ongoing debate about tactics. Many who turned out to protest thought the actions of those associated with the "Black Bloc" were counterproductive--in predictably giving campus authorities and the media an excuse to not address Yiannopoulous' bigoted message, and in sidelining the majority of protesters and putting them at risk of police violence.

Some 2,000 people protest against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley
Some 2,000 people protest against right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley (Joe Parks | flickr)

Nevertheless, it was the large crowd of several thousand people who refused to follow orders to disperse that led police and campus officials to conclude they had lost that confrontation and cancel the event.

UNFORTUNATELY, many well-meaning people who are revolted by Yiannopoulos will only hear the story told by corporate media outlets such as the New York Times: "A speech by the divisive right-wing editor Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, was canceled on Wednesday night after demonstrators set fires and threw objects at buildings to protest his appearance."

This ignores the real issues that brought out so many people to protest Yiannopoulous--at Berkeley, as at other campuses around the country--and the legitimate anger at the growth of far-right bigotry.

The Times wrote that Yiannopoulos is "known for his gleeful attacks on political correctness that can sometimes veer into offensive and racially charged language," and UC Berkeley student newspaper, the Daily Californian, described him as a "controversial conservative"--that, in fact, was the only comment about Yiannopoulos in an article otherwise dedicated to describing each act of vandalism the night of the protest.

"Racially charged" and "controversial" do not even begin to accurately characterize this far-right agitator. Yiannopoulos has said Obama "pampered" Black families with welfare; gay rights have made us dumber; women like to be sexually harassed; Trump should deport fat people; and the list goes on. He has been permanently banned from Twitter after provoking an online mob to attack Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones and using a previous lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to bully a transgender student.

Yiannopoulos had planned to launch a campaign at Berkeley with fellow bigot David Horowitz to target undocumented students and their supporters on "sanctuary campuses." The university administration knew this and told the campus group that organized the event about its concerns, but it didn't alert the campus community to this threat.

The press, meanwhile, has taken to posturing as the resistance to Trump and the right, yet they dismiss or ignore actions taken to challenge the right that unite large numbers of people.

At Berkeley, several thousand people were committed to confronting Yiannopoulos and keeping his message of hate off campus, and they stuck around until that happened. Yet in eyes of UC officials and in the accounts of the press, they have either been ignored, dismissed as dupes of "outside agitators," or lumped together into the "violent protesters" smear.

There isn't a single press report asking why protesters were there or what they stand for. No article quoted the chants of "No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here" that rang out across Berkeley's Sproul Plaza, nor the signs reading "Nobody's free until everybody's free" and "No ban, no hate, no wall."

MANY ON Berkeley campus and outside of it are on the fence about the proper response to Yiannopoulos. They are repulsed by him and his vile racism and misogyny, but they feel the culture of free speech recognized on Berkeley's campus--the product of the radical Free Speech Movement of the 1960s--should give us pause about any protest that makes it impossible for Yiannopoulos to speak.

First of all, this accepts the upside-down story of the free speech struggle sanctioned by the university administration that was opposed to the struggle. The fight for free speech at Berkeley was never about "dialogue," but militant demonstrations and direct action to overcome the university's restrictions on civil rights activism.

We need the same kind of commitment to challenge mouthpieces for bigotry--whose true purpose is to intimidate the voices of those it scapegoats--and make sure their message of hate is shown to be the despised opinion that it is.

Others who wish to oppose the right will say that protest is exactly what Yiannopoulos wants as a provocateur, and so we shouldn't give him the attention.

But that would mean leaving his message unopposed and allowing those who look to Yiannopoulos to gain further confidence--and in the wake of Trump's election, this has led not only to more racist rhetoric but an increase in physical violence against the oppressed.

What's more, the actual character of the protest--huge, tremendously diverse but united in solidarity, largely nonviolent and committed to send their own message--is exactly the kind of opposition that will win more people to actively opposing the right.

Of course, Yiannopoulos will try to portray himself as a victim, even when protests aren't big enough to pressure him to cancel, and Trump will take the opportunity to threaten pulling federal funds from Berkeley, but we can't let the far right's demagoguery determine our own forms of opposition.

THIS LEADS to the biggest problem with the tactics of the Black Bloc minority that initiated property destruction at Berkeley. They purposefully sideline the majority of the protesters and foreground their actions, giving everyone from the university administration to the corporate media to the right-wingers themselves an excuse to ignore the issues raised by the wider crowd, and shift their attention to the "violence."

Supporters of these tactics argue that they were successful in this case--that breaking windows and starting the venue's fire alarms got the event canceled. But there are two problems with this argument.

First, the police would have been able to shut down the anarchists had it not been for the crowd of several thousand that was committed to seeing the protest through to the end.

These protesters were on Sproul Plaza for over an hour, chanting and blocking the venue entrances, before the Black Bloc actions began and police ordered the crowd to disperse. Organizers of the protest like myself certainly planned to use our superior numbers to keep blocking venue entrances and take other mass direct action to disrupt the meeting, when the Black Bloc actions interrupted them.

After that, the police began firing rubber bullets into the crowd, hitting a few nonviolent protesters, but stopped when the crowd didn't disperse. If the protest had been limited to a small number of Black Bloc demonstrators breaking windows, the police could have stopped them easily. In this case, the police decided not to carry out a full-scale attack because of the size of the larger crowd.

Then there is the second issue: Protests like these should be an opportunity to for the largest number of people possible to be involved in taking action. While the protesters didn't disperse when the Black Bloc acted, many people did back away from the action--especially when the masked demonstrators began shooting firecrackers and lit a diesel generator on fire, which exploded into flames.

This effectively converted the majority of the crowd from protesters, using their voices and physical presence to disrupt Yiannopoulos' vile message, to spectators--somewhat supportive, but increasingly wary.

Moreover, the Black Bloc did give the police an excuse to wade into the crowd, even though it was so large. These tactics endangered several thousand people who were not given an opportunity to say if they should be used or not.

Later in the night, anarchists tagged and smashed the windows of several off-campus banks and other businesses, a pointless exercise in property destruction that doesn't politicize anyone.

On the contrary, many protesters were dismayed at the damage and got to work the next day cleaning up. This again only served to distract both protesters and the media from questions around the rise of the far right and used up activists' time and resources that could be devoted to political motivation.

THE MEDIA universally described the Black Bloc's actions as "violence," but failed to note that the only violence instigated against individuals was by right-wingers attacking protesters.

As I was leaving the protest with a group of organizers, we passed by several drunken right-wingers who had tickets for the Yiannopoulos event. Angry at what had taken place, they began chanting "Build the wall" at us and attempted to grab our signs. We held our ground and were attacked, but eventually managed to separate. The right-wingers moved on to start another confrontation with a group of anarchists.

This underlines probably the most important reason why Yiannopoulos must not be allowed to speak unchallenged.

When leaders of the emboldened white nationalist movement hold events, they aren't just trying to gain infamy and turn a profit. These events are opportunities for thugs and bigots to come out of the woodwork and meet, network and plan together.

In anticipation of the Yiannopoulos event at Berkeley, flyers were put up around campus advertising the American Renaissance, a white supremacist website that publishes screeds by the likes of Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan. We can't allow the far right to gain the confidence to mobilize even more.

Everyone was shocked following Trump's election when The Atlantic published a video of alt-right leader Richard Spencer's speech at the National Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., where he shouted "Hail Trump" and a crowd of people responded with the Nazi salute.

Many of us didn't realize this emboldened right was growing, but we do now, and we must stop it. If we let them grow in the shadows, they will be all the stronger when they emerge into the public eye later on.

Further Reading

From the archives